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French Open fallout

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Posted: Monday June 11, 2001 2:29 PM
 

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

Some leftover dust particles from Roland Garros ... As quickly as she transformed herself from cautionary tale to fairy tale, Jennifer Capriati has now gone from a "feel good story" to a bonafide world-beater. Outlasting Kim Clijsters on a day when Capriati never played her best tennis, was just as revealing as her straight-set dissection of Martina Hingis ... All credit to Gustavo Kuerten who has made Roland Garros into his personal dirt playground. But what a shame it will be if he bags Wimbledon ... Don't look now but J-Ca has suddenly won as many Slams as Venus Williams ... Alex Corretja's run will ensure that his legacy will be something other than Pete Sampras' vanquished opponent during Barf-o-Rama '96 ... It's no secret that his detractors cut a wide swath, but you have to admit that Lleyton Hewitt is a mensch for sticking around after his deflating quarterfinal loss and supporting his belle, Clijsters. (Aren't inter-tour relationships -- especially between teenagers -- supposed to have the shelf life of an avocado?) ... Call the cavalry. The Indians are back. Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes won the men's doubles title, their first Slam since 1999 ... Memo to Andre Agassi: mind lending Gil Reyes out to Hingis? ... Jamie-Lynn Sigler, you're the frontrunner for the lead role in the inevitable Jennifer Capriati story.

A quick update regarding last week's question about the proliferation of foreigners playing college tennis in the U.S.: It seems that the USTA has ceased giving an automatic main draw wild card to NCAA singles champs after all. USTA officials point out that singles winners can still get the free pass -- it's just discretionary now. No one will publicly admit that the spate of non-American college players precipitated this policy change. But if Stanford's Laura Granville, who won the women's title and hails from Illinois, gets a discretionary wild card and Matias Boeker, the men's champ from the University of Georgia -- via Buenos Aires -- doesn't, it will say plenty.

Onward...

Love watching Justine Henin play. She has the flair of Amelie Mauresmo, the tennis brain of Hingis, the ferocity of a young Monica Seles, the ability to turn defense into offense like the Williams sisters, and the nerve of Jana Novotna. Is choking in big matches something a player can work on, or is the killer instinct required to finish matches just something you're born with?
--Ian Rashid, Bristol, England

I'm in complete agreement with your observation. Henin's game is so easy on the eyes, and that backhand -- oh, that backhand -- could leave you salivating. But alas, our Belgian friend has yet to learn how to win. In Australia, Henin had a torpid Seles dead to rights, up a set and a break. She promptly lost a dozen straight points, no easy task given Seles' footwork. In the third set Henin was up 4-2 and proceeded to drop four straight games. Six weeks later at Indian Wells, she was up a set and a break to Clijsters, before losing in three sets. Then on Thursday she was dominating Clijsters again; but up a set and a point for 5-2, she gagged. "Choking" is a source of endless fascination for a lot of us. Some say that the killer instinct -- or lack thereof -- is innate. That is, once a choker always a choker. And no amount of positive visualization and psychobabble will cure you.

Proponents of this view point to Novotna and note that even after she won Wimbledon in 1998 -- and presumably slew her mental incubus -- in the following Slam she reverted to her old tricks, choking against Hingis at the U.S. Open. I'm convinced the yips are, at least in part, curable. Exhibit A: Ivan Lendl, who started his career with the fragile psyche of Bill Buckner and, with one win (the 1984 French final) was transformed into a winner equipped with resolve of steel. Lindsay Davenport is another player who wilted under the weight of the occasion early in her career. Yet as the wins slowly mounted and her confidence slowly surfaced it eventually got to the point where she simply expected to win every time she took the court. It will be interesting to see how Henin deals with this one weakness -- granted it's a biggie -- that could prevent her from becoming a truly great player. At age 19, there's plenty of time to employ a Jim Loehr type and get her mental house in order. On the other hand, with each subsequent hiccup, the problem balloons.

The story on the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Casey Martin's right to ride a cart between holes on the PGA tour, stated that the ATP Tour supported the PGA tour and submitted a "friend-of-the-court" brief. I can't see how this situation would arise in tennis. What was the ATP's position -- and why would it support the PGA tour?
--P. David, Toronto

The ATP and the LPGA jointly wrote an Amicus Curiae (compadres of the court) brief to the Supremes, in support of the petitioner, the PGA Tour. The brief basically outlined the way in which the Ninth Circuit, well, choked, in ruling for Martin -- a decision that was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court. The basic argument of the ATP: the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to this case, as a pro golf tournament is not a place of public accommodation. Also, an agreed-upon set of rules, no matter how callous, is at the very essence of athletic competition. To quote from the brief: "the fact that Martin was substantially disadvantaged by application of [the rule prohibiting carts] is precisely the point: athletes who, for whatever reason, cannot perform as well as others when measured against the uniform rules of the game are not supposed to win!"

Why would the ATP support the PGA? Easy answer: the PGA promised the boys in Ponte Vedra comp rounds at TPC Sawgrass if they cooperated.

The brief contained no analogous cases in tennis. But in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in favor of Martin, we hear the following test cases are being prepared by lawyers as we speak:

Sampras v. Association of Tennis Professionals: Plaintiff claims that lagging fitness and southern California provenance unfairly limits his success on clay. Seeks to have Roland Garros courts paved.

Kournikova v. Women's Tennis Association: Plaintiff asserts that mental frailty caused by paralyzing hype she's helpless to prevent, inhibits her ability to win a tournament. Seeks to be awarded an honorary title based on the number of hits her Web site generates.

Watching the French Open last week, I noticed that the Parisian crowd gets very involved in every match, clearly showing whom they like and whom they don't like (especially Martina Hingis). Is there another Grand Slam tournament, or, for that matter, any other tournament, where the crowd is so demonstrative?
--Rodolfo Lara, Munich, Germany

Among the Grand Slams, I'd agree that French crowds are the most demonstrative. Wimbledon is to raucous what the XFL is to tradition-steeped. (Barring, of course, the those moments when pigeons land on Centre Court, which, for reasons unknown, induce side-splitting laughter.) Fans at the U.S. Open can get rowdy -- but by the time the sound carries from their vertiginous seats to the court, the next point has commenced. In Australia, the fans on the outer courts are vocal, but the aura in the main arena is oddly subdued.

Hey, Jon. Which is more laughable ... I mean improbable, Pete Sampras winning the French or Anna Kournikova winning a singles title?
--Rose, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Sadly, the former.

Pat Rafter as the equal of Guillermo Vilas? What's up with that, bro?
--Lionel Wilson, Atlanta

A few of you questioned that one, including my menacing cousin. I realize Vilas won twice as many Slams, a ton more titles, and had a lengthier career. But I say history remembers the two as rough equals. Rafter has reached the semis of each of the four Slams, won the U.S. Open twice, and achieved the top ranking-feats Vilas never accomplished. More important, as perhaps the best pure athlete ever to play the game and an aesthetically-pleasing serve-and-volleyer, it's hard to leave Rafter off a list of the best players of this era.

I, too, caught a bit of the Big Mac "shtick" on Memorial Day and honestly was more embarrassed for him (McEnroe singing The Gambler? Yikes!) than annoyed. But why is it that people always feel free to criticize McEnroe, yet we rarely hear a word of criticism about Pam Shriver and Mary Joe Fernandez's shrill, tight, bland commentary? Is it because they are newer to the airwaves? Nicer? Because they are former pros? Like you, I'd take Mac over just about anyone, but I would vault the Cliff Drysdale/Pat Mac doubles team ahead of him.
--Julie Kohrt, Chicago

Is it: "they'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done"? Or is it: "when the deal is done"?

Anyway, you've answered your own question. While someone like Mary Joe Fernandez is merely benign and bland, inspiring few strong emotions, McEnroe sprays fire with little regard and thus leaves himself open to criticism. Sometimes he is brilliant; other times he embarrasses himself in the eyes of some. Regardless, I give him credit for taking chances, refusing to temper his opinions and giving viewers a reason to watch even the most pedestrian matches. Speaking of Mac, I'm told that during the women's semifinal broadcast, he professed ignorance that Hingis and her mother had split? Where's he been?

Of all the players in the game today, who do you believe will be the next McEnroe or Mary Carillo in the booth?
--Jay Starr, Wantagh, N.Y.

Good question. Both are unique, so I'm not sure there are "nexts" out there. Mac is ... Mac. And Carillo is the rare former player who's not only armed with the cynicism of a seasoned journalist, but isn't afraid to deploy it wittily at the expense of current players. Just ask Venus Williams, who has angrily anointed Carillo as "the president of the anti-Williams club."

Anyway, a number of current players would make for good announcers. I'd start with Hingis who knows other players' games inside and out, pores over the rankings like a handicapper at the track, and, of course, lacks anything resembling an editor on her tongue. Not sure if she's conversant in Kenny Rogers' lyrics, but Lord knows anything else is capable of coming out of her mouth. Given the rave reviews of her book, Nathalie Tauziat could seek a second career in the booth. Todd Martin balances a distinguished demeanor with a wry sense of humor. Agassi is astute in his observations and has become well-spoken late in his career. He wasn't half-bad calling Roddick's match for ESPN during the Ericsson. Of course, Marcelo Rios' engaging personality and affection for the media makes him a natural, too.

Watching some Roland Garros matches on ESPN Latin America last week with a group of friends, we entered into a discussion of the reason tennis balls on a clay surface do not get as dirty as the players' socks, shirts and shorts. Someone mentioned it's because when the player hits the ball with his racquet, all the dirt that the ball holds falls down. Can you please help us with this important issue? There is some money involved! Thanks.
--Roman Fallas, San Jose, Costa Rica

It's heartening to see that it's not just us American males who ponder and discuss some of life's most profound mysteries while watching sports. I'm just guessing here, but could this vexing phenomenon have anything to do with the fact that players use new balls every six games while they generally play an entire match without changing their shirt, socks or shoes? Again, just a guess. Here's one for you and the boys in Costa Rica: Why do they call the cereal Grape Nuts if it contains neither grapes nor nuts? Discuss.

I'm asking this seriously, not wanting to belittle Sampras in any way (I'm actually a fan of his): If Pete had played in this year's women's draw at Roland Garros, would he have had a chance to win the tournament given the form he displayed in his two matches? We were discussing this, and though a few people were outraged at the suggestion, most actually agreed that he would find it very difficult to win the women's tournament. Consider the form he displayed against an almost amateur whom he barely beat, and the least distinguished Spaniard against whom he lost without a fight.
Heinz Loeb, Cologne, Germany

Ouch. First, the straight answer: if Sampras were to enter the women's draw, he would win the title handily and probably play a golden set -- failing to lose a point -- or two along the way. Further, Cedric Kauffman, the "almost amateur" Sampras narrowly beat in round one, would win the women's tournament, too. I like women's tennis as much as anyone, champion equal prize money, etc., etc. But as we've discussed here before, when we compare the men's and women's games, we're essentially talking about two different sports.

Still, your question is telling, as it reveals just how much Sampras' mystique is fading on account of his French Open flameouts. Here stands arguably the greatest player in history, the winner of a baker's dozen worth of Grand Slams. And fans -- in Germany, no less, so we know they're not making a joke -- are pondering how he would fare in the women's draw of the French Open.

Jon, rumors are swirling that Andy Roddick wasn't seriously injured in the Hewitt match, and that he exaggerated his injury and his emotions, in both that contest and the Michael Chang match. Other sources are saying that Roddick was seriously injured and is refusing to take time off to recover. Based on what I saw in Atlanta and Houston, I think Andy is too much of a competitor to abandon a match with a trumped-up injury. Is it possible that Roddick's fast ascent in terms of ranking and popularity is ruffling some feathers? Or is he really an 18-year-old dramatic actor posing as a talented tennis player, as some seem to claim?
--Susan, Ventura, Calif.

This is the ATP equivalent of Martina Navratilova hazing a 16-year-old Monica Seles, petty players teasing a young Steffi Graf and WTA marginalia putting soiled underwear near the lockers of Venus and Serena Williams. No one likes fresh meat coming in and pilfering their thunder.

First, let's be rational. The kid is 18 years old and playing a former champion in a Grand Slam. Is he really thinking about giving a dramatic performance in addition to winning the match? Second, anyone who watched could see Roddick's coach, Tarik Benhabiles , pleading for him to quit playing (Benhabiles was in on the performance, too?), not to mention Roddick staggering like a punch-drunk boxer. Also, reports of Roddick getting his proverbial freak on at the players' party were, I'm told, greatly exaggerated. (Come on, what 18-year-old American male would be caught dead dancing in public?)

It was pretty weird to see Yevgeny Kafelnikov's expression after his loss to Gustavo Kuerten in the French Open quarters. If you had a crystal ball, what could you say about the evil-tempered Russian's future in the game? He seems more interested in talking trash than playing well.
--Fernando Duarte, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

My crystal ball is currently in the shop, it having yielded Venus Williams as the 2001 French Open champ. Deferring, however, to common sense, I will say unequivocally that Kafelnikov has won his last Grand Slam. Owing as much to his workaholic tendencies as his match results, he ought to finish the year in the Top 10. But as Kuerten laid bare in the quarters, at age 27 the Rocket is running low on fuel. His groundies seem to have lost some sting and he simply seems unwilling to grind out tough matches.

Incidentally, is it me or do Kafelnikov's gripes about the work ethic of current young players give irony a new dimension? Sure the guy won a pair of Slams, but he's equally well-known for his tanking tendencies and his inexplicable early-round losses to players like Werner Eschauer and Markus Hantschk (not just a marginal German player; a lousy Scrabble rack to boot.) When Kafelinkov achieved the top ranking in 1999 and promptly lost six straight matches, it was, by many accounts, the final straw in revamping the ranking system.

What do you think of Chris Evert as an announcer? I personally find her kind of annoying, but I can't quite pinpoint why. What do you think?
--Michael Kelly, Seattle

She's no Mac.

Claudia Kohde-Kilsch plays recreationally in Germany.
--Mark Schaeffer, Los Angeles

Thanks. Now tennis fans everywhere can sleep. Or at least resume pondering why the balls at Roland Garros are cleaner than the players' togs.

Finally, our man Ismail may still be at large, but it seems we have an Al Parker sighting. C. Cavender of Atlanta reports: In doing a Web search I came across this column because it refers to a friend of mine, Al Parker. You asked several months ago what he is up to these days. Tennis Magazine is running an article updating Al's life in its July 2001 issue. He completed his MBA at Harvard and is an investment banker in Atlanta. I don't think he even plays tennis anymore.

Click here to send a question or comment to Jon Wertheim.

 
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